Monday, September 13, 2004

Persepolis and Maus

Graphic Novels RULE! I’m only half-joking when I tell people that if I had my way I wouldn’t read anything else. Have just finished Persepolis 2:The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi; it’s the sequel to her Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which I’d read only a couple of weeks ago. The first book is the story of Marjane’s childhood and adolescence as a young Iranian in the shadow of the 1979 revolution; the second deals with her stay in Austria, where her parents sent her at the age of 14, her return to her home country and difficulties in adjusting to a very different cultural milieu.

Persepolis has been influenced (as have so many modern graphic novels) by Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Maus. I don’t have much time for a detailed blog now so here’s a piece I wrote for the books section of my newspaper’s lifestyle magazine recently:

The Holocaust, in a comic book

Jai Arjun Singh

In 1992 something atypical happened in the literary award universe. The Pulitzer Prize committee gave a special citation to a novel that could roughly be classifed as a comic book -- a category not generally beloved of crusty high-lit juries. But then Maus was no ordinary comic. Art Spiegelman’s attempt to understand the life of his father Vladek, a concentration camp survivor, is a work of uncommon intelligence, perspicuity and depth. And it helped bring the underappreciated genre of the graphic novel into the mainstream.

To understand what Spiegelman was up against in terms of gaining acceptance for his work, one needs to understand the reactions provoked by Holocaust art in many quarters. Several critics, like George Steiner, believe that the only way to deal with the Holocaust is by not depicting it at all. "In the face of certain realities," said Steiner, "art becomes trivial and insignificant." This view is understandable to an extent -- the chillingly systematic extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany is a subject so sensitive, the fear that it might be trivialised is a natural one. Imagine, in this context, the horrified reactions to the idea of a comic book version!

But Spiegelman sidesteps the exclusivist approach and tries, instead, to present the events for the ordinary reader, who wants to at least attempt to understand. When Vladek explains how the "fat from burning bodies was scooped out and poured again so everyone could burn better", the next panel shows Art holding his head and saying "Jesus!" Steiner and others would have considered this a grossly inadequate reaction to an inestimable horror; but then, it’s exactly how most of us would react on being told the story.

The use of a "non-realistic" medium like the comic book creates the necessary buffer between the reader and the subject matter, as does Art’s chief creative device: he depicts the Jews (including himself and his father) as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Poles as pigs. And there’s method behind the innovation: Hitler refused to acknowledge the Jews as "humans", and a Nazi manifesto denounced Mickey Mouse as a "filth-covered vermin" -- which is pretty much how they regarded Jews as well.

Maus moves between two time periods. The present is sometime in the 1970s, which is when young Art, notepad and tape recorder in hand, visits his cantankerous old father -- now remarried, after the suicide of Art’s mother a few years earlier. Over the course of several meetings, we get Vladek’s story from his youth in the early 1930s, through the first signs of anti-Semiticism revealing its darkest shades, and finally to the horrors of Auschwitz.

Some passages are difficult if you’re seeking a straightforward morality tale. Spiegelman’s drawings might be simple (albeit deceptively so) but there’s nothing simplistic about his treatment of the story. In the panel depicting speculations on why Art’s mother killed herself, "Menopausal tension" shares space with "Hitler did it!" And Art unsparingly depicts his aged father showing the same contempt for a black American hitchhiker that the Nazis had for the Jews. (Vladek justifies his prejudice by saying "It’s not even to compare the ‘Shvartsers’ and the Jews!") Intolerance knows no barriers; it infests even those who have been on the receiving end of the worst of it.

"I just wanted to portray my father accurately," says a confused Art at one point in the book. One of the many remarkable things about Maus is how it manages simultaneously to be a moving record of the greatest tragedy of the last century, and a son’s very personal tribute to his father.

1 comment:

  1. Graphic Novels RULE! I’m only half-joking when I tell people that if I had my way I wouldn’t read anything else.

    Amen brother. Also get everything ever published by Dan Clowes and Chris Ware (in an unlikely case you haven't).

    The Push Man & Other Stories
    Yoshihiro Tatsumi

    I could add many more to the list but don't know you well enough to impose myself w/ a list of 25 odd books.